1812: A Turning Point in British History by Laurie Alice Eakes
For those of us immersed in the Regency time period, the year 1812 holds numerous significant incidents–incidents that set history on a course from the old world and into the new. Power changed hands in government and wars, the Industrial Revolution dug in its heels, and Great Britain, for all it became the most far-flung empire in history, began to receive its first glimpse of a shocking truth—it would not always rule the waves.
By 1811, few people denied that the king was permanently mad and could no longer be head of state. The Regency bill passed making his eldest son, also a George, the Prince Regent, or the head of the government. The king, however, still showed enough glimpses of restoration to health that “Prinney” didn’t assume full powers of his role until 1812.
A gamester and profligate spender, the Prince Regent was forever petitioning Parliament for money. This placed him in the power of Parliament and the role of royalty in actually running the government of the kingdom began to diminish.
While Prinney assumed his role as head of Great Britain, a man known as Captain Ludd assumed a different kind of leadership role mostly in the north. The Luddite Rebellion fills books it is such a complex subject, a small war that ultimately took soldiers into Nottingham and York and Lancashire to put it down. Many men died.
The simplest way to explain the Luddite Rebellion is that the weavers, mostly those making stockings, couldn’t make a living. They usually had to rent their looms, the prices for their products were controlled, and they couldn’t change a thing. The Industrial Revolution was bringing in steam looms, machines that were too much competition. So the Luddites started smashing up looms and not letting people work. They sabotaged the industrial looms and spinning machines. Violence reigned powerfully for several months and took about a year to put down in full.
A way of life was coming to an end. The cottage industry of weaving with one or maybe three looms at home was no longer viable in a world quickly becoming mechanized through steam power.
May 11, 1812 saw a horrendous incident when a man stormed into Parliament and shot the prime minister in front of witnesses. Many thought this a French plot, but it was a disturbed individual who thought he hadn’t been served justly by the government. Although the consequences of this assassination weren’t to be known for many years, it brought in a different government that delayed necessary reforms in laws and taxation that would have happened sooner had Perceval lived.
On a brighter note, the war with France, that had been dragging on for nearly twenty years and not going all that well for Great Britain, finally took a turn for the better. Arthur Welsley, AKA Wellington, won the Battle of Salamanca in Spain and the tide was turning against the French at last. Of course, Napoleon didn’t help himself by invading Russia. Tremendously weakened his forces and, I think had a damaging psychological effect on the French people. The emperor was no longer invincible.
Finally for the purposes of this article, is the War of 1812, as it is known in the United States. In England, it’s a blip on the radar, not even taught in advanced history classes. I once laid out some facts about it to a British friend who said I had to be mistaken. In no way could this fledgling country with about eighteen naval vaessels, none great, have beaten down the most powerful maritime power the world had known.
But it happened.
Great Britain was impressing American men because the war with France had so decimated Britain’s supply. On the smallest pretext, English naval personnel boarded American ships and took away anyone they could pretend was really English and didn’t’ care about the rest.
They also tried to tell the United States where and with whom it could trade. The U.S. said, “Uh, no way, you don’t rule us any more,” and this little, fledgling nation did as it pleased. The U.S. declared war in June, which was kind of stupid, rather like a domestic tabby taking on a Siberian tiger.
But the United States had its privateers. It built the best small, fast, and maneuverable vessels in the world. It armed them and ripped apart the British merchant fleet, taking hundreds of merchantmen until the merchants put pressure on Parliament and the United States signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814 and got everything it wanted, including the Northwest Territory.
Interestingly, the land battles mostly took place in Michigan and Canada, and the Americans did not show well. And we must not forget to mention that the British burned the U.S. national capital, usually the point at which a country surrenders.
Britain faced the fact that she could be defeated on the high seas. Although we had a long way to go to be as powerful as England in the maritime realm, we showed our claws and made this powerful nation back down. To be fair to Great Britain, they were a bit preoccupied with France.
The Regency is a fascinating turning point in history. 1812 may have the most collective number of those turns of any year of this short but significant time period.
Article contributed by Laurie Alice Eakes, member of The Beau Monde chapter of Romance Writers of America.